Last year, the best-known and hardest-charging company commercializing the so-called high-temperature superconductors, American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC), came under fire in connection with a contract to upgrade the New York City power system. The basic idea, which was new and untested, was that by using superconducting cable in the New York distribution grid, not only could the capacity of the system be increased up to ten-fold, but the intrinsic properties of superconductors could be exploited to damp excess currents.
AMSC and its subcontracting partner in the plan, New York's Con Edison, obtained a commitment to fund the project from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. DHS saw the project, which it dubbed Hydra, as an opportunity to demonstrate technology that could be used to fortify grids against breakdown and attack everywhere in the country. But because of a pattern of sole-source contracting between AMSC and U.S. government agencies, and the role of one person in particular in negotiating such contracts for the government, Project Hydra came into the sights of Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), surely the most feared investigator on Capitol Hill.
AMSC had obtained contracts to develop superconducting electric motors for the U.S. Navy, when Rear Admiral Jay M. Cohen was Chief of Naval Research, and now this very same Cohen was giving AMSC another big contract as a research director at DHS!
AMSC and Project Hydra appear now to have survived Dingell's challenge. The company announced yesterday that DHS has signed a contract with AMSC to proceed with demonstration of the company's Secure Super Grids technology in New York, using its second-generation "344" cable. DHS, having already paid AMSC $3.8 million under a letter agreement, will now pay up to a total of $25 million to complete the project, contingent on demonstrated performance, step-by-step.
What Dingell may have missed, as emphasized in the analytic story IEEE Spectrum published about Project Hydra last November, is that this is basically a research and development project: as it proceeds, new technology will be developed and tested, and only if it pans out at each stage will the next phase of the project be funded. But if Dingell is confused, he's not to be blamed. The company itself, seeking to project a confident image and to persuade the world that this is a wholly done deal, has obscured the project's experimental character.